Image above (L to R) Gene Wolfe, Rosemary Wolfe, Edna Budrys, Algis Budrys, Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson at the 1986 workshop in Taos, New Mexico.
What goes through an editor’s mind when he reads a story by an aspiring writer? In this article written by Frederik Pohl in 1987 for Writers of the Future volume 3, he is about to tell you.…
I don’t advise writers to write with editors in mind. An editor is really only a middleman; his job is to try to guess what readers will like, and it is the ultimate reader who will in the long run decide who succeeds in writing.
However, it’s important to impress an editor—especially if he has no idea of how well you write. It is the editor who makes the decision on what gets into print, so he can’t be ignored. Moreover, there are things to be learned from editors, if only because the editors have had to learn them themselves. At least half of the workmanship skills and techniques of writing are things I learned over the thirty-nine years from my first professional editorial job to my last. These form a major part of how I appraise a story from someone I’ve never read before … and a good part of how I do all my reading.
What editors learn about writing comes largely from the things that writers do wrong. It’s easier to see where somebody else has gone wrong than it is when it’s your own work, and then you can look at your own with a more knowing eye. That’s a big plus, for anyone who wants not only to “be a writer” but to write well. Unfortunately, becoming an editor is not an option open to everyone who wants to write; there simply are not that many editorial jobs.
What you can do, however, is what Albert Einstein called a “thought experiment.” Put yourself in an editor’s place for a moment, and see how you look to him as he goes through the process of deciding whether what you will subsequently find in your mailbox is going to be a rejection slip, or a check, or something in between.
THE IMPORTANT FIRST IMPRESSION
I’m going first to spend some time discussing manuscript preparation because that’s what makes the first impression for your story.
Your first contact with an editor (not necessarily the editor, but we’ll come to that later) occurs when the mailman drops your manuscript on his desk. (It may well be “her” desk, rather than “his.” In fact, these days it is more likely to be a her than a him—but forgive me if I don’t keep saying “his or her.”)
You can lose the whole game right here if your manuscript is handwritten, or otherwise illegible. You can also stack the cards against you, though not always lethally, in a lot of lesser ways, and a lot of them come under the general heading of “neatness.”
You see, what you don’t want to do is make it hard for an editor to like your work. His eyes take enough punishment. Pica type (also known as 12-point in printers’ measure, or 10-strike in IBM’s loopy dialect) is usually better than the smaller elite or “12-strike”— but don’t go overboard and use one of the giant sizes available with some computers.
You should, (1) enclose an adequately stamped, self-addressed return envelope in case of need; (2) put enough stamps on the manuscript mailing envelope so it doesn’t arrive postage-due; (3) put your name and address on the manuscript. The right place for your name and address is in the upper left-hand corner of the first page, but at least get it on there somewhere. If you want to use a pen-name on the story you can, but put your check-cashing name in the corner of the manuscript. Then, under the title of the story, type whatever byline you want, and the editor will know what you mean. Repeat a key word of the story title, and the last name of your byline, and a page number, at the top of each succeeding page.
A few additional general rules about the mechanics of submitting a story:
It doesn’t matter whether you use a typewriter or a word processor, but if you use a word processor don’t set your printer to create a straight right-hand margin. (No editors insist on justification, as it’s called, and some editors actively hate it. Typesetters are infuriated by it.)
If your printer (or typewriter) lets you do fancy things, don’t do them. Don’t italicize; underline instead. Otherwise the copy editor has to do the underlining for you, because typesetters require it.
Don’t use odd typefaces—small caps, semi-script, sans-serif—they’re sometimes hard to read, and often annoying. Besides which, typesetters don’t like them, and sometimes charge extra for setting “difficult copy.” Editors don’t like extra charges—their publishers speak to them about it.
Finally, don’t try to cram a 40-page manuscript into a letter-sized envelope. For a short manuscript of five or maybe ten pages you can fold it in half, although a fold makes copy-editing more difficult; anything longer should be mailed flat.
Remember, these mechanical things are the first thing the editor sees. They are, God knows, not important to the merits of the story—but blunders with the manuscript can keep your story from ever being read.
Sloppy manuscripting will not, in the long run, keep a real masterpiece from being published. But the facts of life are that most stories aren’t masterpieces. There is no clear-cut line between the story that gets bought—reluctantly—and the story that gets bounced—regretfully. Many stories are right on the cusp. They can go either way. How well or badly you do the mechanical things can push your story one way or the other.
If you’ve done all the mechanical stuff more or less correctly, then you’ve passed the first test. At least now somebody will evaluate your story. The person who reads it probably is not the person who will make the final decision about buying it, because nearly all editors use first readers to eliminate the worst of the “slush.” And you are by no means guaranteed that he will read it all the way through. But at least you’ve got the story in the hands of someone who has the authority to move it one step closer to print, and what happens now is up to your story. There are many ingredients that can sway the decision for you or against. Here are some of them:
Title. A catchy title encourages the reader to read on—whether he is an editor who gets paid to read or is your cash customer in the store. What makes a good title? Some answers to that question would be “relevance to your story,” “tickling curiosity,” “graceful use of language,” maybe even “humor”—but it would be more truthful to say, “I don’t know.” I do know a good title when I see one, and so does everyone else, but there isn’t any formula for generating them. Probably you’ll know a good title when you think of it… so always try a few different ones.
One other way to come up with a decent title is to make a list of as many possible titles as you would be willing to have on your story, then ask friends which one would make them want to read the piece. If you agree with one, use it. But don’t get hung up on this. If you have a good title, that’s a plus. If you don’t, it’s not fatal. Editors are willing to improve titles; some of them, in fact, actually feel left out if they can’t.
Opening. Once past the title, your editor naturally starts reading on “Page One.” If at all possible, have something there to interest him, for if you don’t he may never get to “Page Two.”
The technical name for the kind of opening you want is a “narrative hook,” meaning something which so piques the curiosity, arouses the sympathy or otherwise engages the attention of the reader that he is hooked and wants to get on with the narrative. There aren’t any good rules for constructing a narrative hook, either, but a good way to find one is to start your story at the point where something interesting is happening. The art of writing, to some degree, is the art of leaving out the dull parts. If you can’t quite leave out all the dull parts, at least try not to start with one. It is a useful exercise to look over some of your unsuccessful stories as though the author were someone you didn’t know and didn’t particularly want to know, and ask yourself, at every page and even every sentence, “Why is he telling me all this?” If you can’t think of a reason, cut that part out.
Page-Turning. The above applies not only to the opening of your story, but all the way through it. Students of playwriting at the University of Texas (so one of them told me long ago, leaving an indelible impression on my mind) used to be told that there were only three reasons for including any given line in a play: To show character; to advance the action; or to get a laugh. If you make the last stricture “to give the reader pleasure of some kind,” I would think those rules apply just as well to prose fiction.
However, you can’t make a rotten story good just by cutting it to the bone. The bone may be rotten. To make a reader turn the pages it is not enough to get to what you have to say quickly; you must also have something to say.
You also need someone to say it about, and that element is called characterization. It is characters who make a story move. If you read in a newspaper that 1800 Bolivians have died in an earthquake you may not be greatly moved; but if your bridge partner is run over by a truck you care. The difference is that you know your bridge partner, and you didn’t know all those other people; events are more interesting when you know who they are happening to.
Characterization is making the reader know the characters, so that he will care what happens to them. You can do that in a quick-and-dirty way—that is, by what is called “funny hat” characterization, meaning that you tag one of your people by giving him an odd and picturesque trait. Perhaps you have him wear a funny hat, or give him a wooden leg or the habit of saying “Bless my watch fob!” Or you can do it by letting the reader understand what the character is like through showing what he does and what he feels. Understand better, if it is done right, than the character himself understands. Mark Twain did both: You remember the heroine of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court because of her “funny hat”—actually, her habit of telling interminably dull stories—you remember Huckleberry Finn because Twain made you see right into his stubborn, cynical, quirky but decent and generous soul. The second way is harder, and better. But both work, and if you can’t manage the hard way then at least do it the easy. If you can’t tell us anything else about your characters, at least let us know something about what they want, what they fear—what their problems are; because these should enter into the action of the story.
AND NOW FOR THE STORY
Which brings us to story. A story involves change. Something has to happen. What happens does not have to be on a physical level; it can be the inside of the characters that changes, and maybe the only thing that changes is that the characters positively make up their minds that change just isn’t going to happen. (That’s an approximate outline of William Saroyan’s most famous story, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze). It should not happen in a straight line, of course. If your character’s problem is that he wants to marry The Girl, and he asks her, and she says yes, then that’s a kind of story but, oh, what a dull one!
Some pulp writers of a generation ago used to follow a “Plot Skeleton.” It was articulated by the literary agent, Scott Meredith, in a book on writing, and it says, basically, that the structure of any story has three parts. In the first part, the lead character is in a hellish bad fix. In the second part he almost gets out of it but, through no fault of his own, fails. In the last part he successfully solves the problem.
According to Meredith, this plot skeleton is actually present in every novel and short story ever written, from The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter right up to the novelization of the latest Star Trek film. I wouldn’t go that far, but the ingredients are all useful: An opening problem, the more urgent the better; a complication that keeps the hero on the hook and the reader turning pages; a satisfying resolution so the reader knows when the story’s over.
Then there is pace. There are, it is true, some kinds of stories that require a good deal of elapsed story time for the events to unfold. Most stories don’t. Particularly in a short story, avoid like poison the sentence, “Several months went by without anything happening,” or anything much like it. The attention wanders. Once again, it is a matter of leaving out the dull parts—not only in the parts you describe but in those you don’t.
Last of all, accuracy. In writing science fiction in particular, get at least your basic science right. You can’t have helicopters flying around the Moon (there’s no air), or take a rocket ship to Alpha Centauri in a week (a rocket can’t go that fast). It is a matter of trust. If your reader doesn’t have trust in you, he won’t enjoy your story, and one sure way to forfeit that trust is to be caught in a fat-headed blunder. You don’t need to know much about science to write some kinds of science fiction, but don’t pretend to know more than you do.
What I have described is a sort of catalogue of the elements of an acceptable manuscript, as an editor might see them. The manuscript should be mechanically adequate. The story shouldn’t sprawl, either in wordage or in draggy action. The characters should be solid enough to make the editor (and the ultimate reader) care what happens to them. And something should happen in the story.
If you’ve performed the thought experiment of looking at your manuscript through an editor’s eyes, you now should be able to see some reasons why you’ve been rejected—if that has been the case—and in fact you can analyze your story, or anyone else’s, quite expertly. For that’s all there is to it … except for one thing, one element, one quality that I haven’t touched on at all, and that was quite unfair, since it happens to be the most important thing of all. I’ve talked about everything that goes into your story, except you.
The only thing any writer has to sell is his own personal, idiosyncratic view of the world. What is it that you have to say? What have you seen that nobody else has seen, that you can set down for others?
When the editor reads your story he does not compare it against the checklist above. But all of these things will be in the back of his mind, along with a hundred other things that have to do with his own personal needs and preferences. However, if all he is doing is no more than to count off the ways in which your story matches a standard recipe, you may sell, but you’re in trouble. That means your story is at best marginal, one of the dozen or so that he can probably print without stinking up the magazine (or the line of books) too badly, but which no one will miss if it doesn’t get published. And there really is no point in being a writer if you don’t intend to set your sights higher than that.
So … do all the things that are said or implied above, but don’t stop there. Do more. Do your best to write stories that no one but you could have written, and write them as well as you can.
And good luck to you in the attempt!
A notable SF author since before World War II and ultimately a Grandmaster of Science Fiction, Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) was also an editor of great influence throughout his career, starting at Astonishing and Super Science and going on to Galaxy, IF, and elsewhere. He is the discoverer of Ray Bradbury, R.A. Lafferty, Keith Laumer and Larry Niven, among scores of other well-known names. He created the Star series, setting the pattern that other editors still follow for anthologies of original SF short fiction. He was also a novels editor at several prestigious publishing houses, served as an instructor and Contest judge for the Writers of the Future program.
His own work in fiction included Day Million and The Gold at the Starbow’s End, The Space Merchants, Man Plus, and Gateway, which garnered a thicket of awards. But those symbols of expertise are equaled in number by the trophies he won as an editor. One year, IF won the Hugo award in every eligible category.